British Prime Minister Theresa May doesn’t exactly have a reputation for unpredictability. A cautious and disciplined politician – a vicar’s daughter, no less – May doesn’t play around with the truth, nor does she take unnecessary risks or stray beyond a comfort zone populated by a tightknit group of advisers.
So when she insisted, repeatedly, that she would not hold an election before the next due date, in 2020, she was believed unreservedly.
Then, on April 18, May called for a snap general election in June. Surprise.
May’s change of heart certainly seemed out of character. But it was hardly the political bombshell that many have made it out to be. In fact, in many ways, it was a logical move. After all, opinion polls put May’s Conservative Party some 20 percentage points ahead of the opposition Labour Party.
It should come as no surprise that British leaders usually choose to hold an election when their party is most likely to win it. And May – whose government is about to launch tough negotiations with the European Union over Britain’s departure – is expected to win big. Even if the pollsters are wrong and the election is no walk in the park for Conservatives, they are overwhelmingly likely to come out on top.
I was once involved in a similar decision that went the other way. In 1991, when John Major was prime minister, I was the Conservative Party chairman responsible for election planning. The first Iraq war had just been won, and Saddam Hussein had been kicked out of Kuwait.
In the blaze of that great military victory, in which Britain had played a part, many commentators and supporters urged Major to call an election. But he refused.
The victory in Iraq amounted to a success for the United Kingdom; it should not be usurped by a political party, not even his own. It was the right call. And, anyway, he won the planned election the following year.
May has made the opposite call. She says that her decision was prompted by the criticism she faced from opponents in parliament over the imminent Brexit negotiations.
She wants a strong mandate to “negotiate for Britain,” and that means crushing what one tabloid – in the typically incendiary rhetoric of Brexiteer populism – described as “saboteurs” of the national interest.
But the truth is that, at the moment, May could get her way with most of the country. The main exception is to be found within her own party, which is split between hardline champions of Brexit and more moderate forces. With a larger personal mandate, perhaps May will be able to face down Conservative opposition during the negotiations with the EU.
The question is which side May wants to confront. Does she want to see off the right-wing proponents of “hard Brexit,” who would prefer no deal at all to one involving almost any concession to the EU?
Or does she want to be able to stand up to advocates of a “soft Brexit,” the sort of deal that would give Britain’s economy, at some cost, the best possible chance in terms of trade, innovation, and investment?
Truth be told, no one knows what May really wants or for what she will settle. So far, she has kept her cards close to her chest, with her government speaking inscrutably and in generalities.
Apparently, the goal is to secure the best possible trade terms, without offering any concessions on free movement of labor or the authority of the European Court of Justice. Anyone who thinks this means that Britain will retain the same advantages that it enjoys as an EU member is in for a rude shock.
It is at that point when Britain’s insular political debate will come face to face with the real world. Whatever happens in the UK’s June election, and however large May’s resulting mandate may seem, the unalterable reality underlying the coming Brexit talks is that the UK must negotiate with 27 other countries, all of which have their own domestic political considerations – just like Britain.
Some pundits have suggested that May’s government is counting on a big election victory essentially to hand it a blank check for the Brexit talks. How much truth there is to this will become clearer during the election campaign, when we see how much detail the Conservatives offer about their negotiating objectives.
But, blank check or not, the government clearly hopes that, when the election is over, it is left with a large, docile majority in Parliament of what the Chinese call “whatever-ists.” Whatever deal the May government manages to strike with the EU will suit them just fine.
I do not believe for a moment that this is how things are going to go over the next few years. “Whatever-ism” is neither strong nor sustainable. Regardless of the electoral mandate May secures in June, if she concludes a bad Brexit deal, or ends up with no deal at all, she and her government – not to mention the entire British economy – will be in for a very rough ride.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.